Having assumed the unenviable mantle of becoming the Xbox One’s graphical warhorse, it is with a clattering of sword-on-shield that Ryse: Son of Rome heroically leads the charge against its next-gen competition.
We begin at the conclusion to Crytek’s merciless bloodbath, historical accuracy falling by the wayside as Rome sees itself besieged by Boudica and her barbaric forces. Troubled protagonist, the fictional Roman general Marius Titus, rushes to defend the capital, a feat that sees him kick over ladders, bellow at archers to fire volleys into the advancing hordes, and commandeer the deadly crossbow-like Scorpio.
It’s easy to become lost amid the spectacle, fiery arrows fleeting through the darkened skies as smoke billows across the periphery, yet Titus’s true motives lie in cornering the neglectful Emperor Nero in his Vault, and succeed he does. From this opening point, the narrative shifts back in time to recount the past ten years and what led Titus to be driven to such vengeful desperation, such storyline inspiration largely drawn from the Greek mythological figure Damocles, something of a historical faux pas even if its gravitas may be forgiven.
It’s your typical tale of loss, betrayal, and redemption, swung around the morale that leaders should always look after their men, or risk being avenged for their selfish mistakes. Neatly interwoven with a few disjointed moments, it’s hard not to feel for Titus’s plight as the Roman Empire soon begins to crumble around him.
If there’s criticism to be placed, it’s that Ryse: Son of Rome is all too eager to play its cards early. Within the opening levels you will have already shouted Kinect voice commands, strategically designated where you want your infantry positioned at certain locations, and hustled with your legions in a Tetsudo formation (that’s tortoise to you and me). These are elements that work exceptionally well, fuelling attempts to immerse yourself within Crytek’s creation, and yet they aren’t exploited enough throughout the game’s campaign.
You’ll have already heard much about the combat system, which beats to the sound of the game’s own war drum. A rhythmic combination of slashing, bashing to open vulnerabilities, and deflecting incoming attacks, the fluidity in animation is spellbinding. It’s a clear display of CryEngine’s swaggering technical prowess on next-gen hardware, heightened further by the chance to perform executions when you run an enemy’s health down. These quick-time events are gratifying occurrences, seeing you respond to visual coloration of foes as button prompts that result in you severing limbs, slicing throats, chinning enemies with your shield, and kneeing them in the face.
More tantalising double executions can be performed if there are multiple weakened enemies nearby, yet a reliance on a core sword and shield combination means that everything quickly becomes tiresome. Combat must have always been seen as a clear pillar for Ryse: Son of Rome, so the lack of weapon variety is an inexcusable oversight that leads the game down the wayward path to repetitive hell. Ranged attacks are the only differentiator provided away from the Roman war machines, yet are confined to throwing spears in the direction of distant archers.
A skill upgrade tree makes an attempt to diversify, yet lacks the necessary depth to truly impact upon the experience. Further execution animations can be unlocked, but with no control over which animation your character performs they provide little incentive, whilst health, XP gain rate, and spear inventory capacity can also see increases.
Ryse: Son of Rome’s only other gambit is the Focus ability, Titus letting out a fierce roar as time slows around him so that you can pull off a succession of quick attacks. Useful for getting yourself out of tricky situations, but an unimportant addition otherwise.
Aside from the campaign, co-operative multiplayer provides a further avenue for your time. You’ll join a fellow gladiatorial combatant as you tackle challenges laid before you in the Colosseum, theatrical constructions that see you fighting your way through set piece stages – capturing makeshift castles and setting ships ablaze to entertain the crowds.
It’s surprising that the game finds so much more context here, your ill-equipped gladiator rising through the ranks and showered with gold. This is spent purchasing weapons and armour in an effort to improve your survival odds, whilst also an opportune moment to garb your character in something other than the sweaty loin cloth they start off with. Such items are provided through randomised in-game booster packs, with micro-transactions rearing their ugly head for those that want gold without having to invest their time in grinding through multiplayer matches, not that you ever need to do so.
In an industry that is quickly becoming reliant on established ideas, Ryse: Son of Rome is a daring, if faltering, move to deliver something new. It may not find its mark, but a sequel that improves upon the broader criticisms could see Crytek on to something truly special.
by Alex Seedhouse